New England Memories

York Beach, Maine
York Beach, Maine

Sometimes a long delay gives you better perspective. I hadn’t been back home to New England in eleven years until our recent trip. Thinking of Thomas Wolfe’s dictum, “You can’t go home again,” I didn’t really know if my previous enthusiasm about the place could withstand a revisit after being away so long.

But it did:

There was exciting Boston with its history, culture, and trail-blazing architecture. And being a retired prof, I salivated thinking of those 100-plus colleges and universities within its 4.5 million metropolitan area. Unfortunately, we could only spend one night there, but at least Karen and I got over to Fenway for a night game to watch our beloved Red Sox. Yeah, they lost; in fact, got routed, but we were compensated big time exploring the Prudential Center’s seemingly endless mall with its myriad shops and culinary haunts.

Then Rowley, founded in 1639, where I lived several years. My cousin, Susan, more like a sister than a cousin, still lives there. Sharing memories was just the right brew amid the town’s quiet ambience with its 5000 population, though only 35-miles north of Boston. It had 1500 people back in 1957 when I left, yet retains its delightful small town feel. Like so much of New England’s sleepy rural towns nestled in bucolic splendor, time hasn’t played its heavy hand.

And then our visit for a week to Maine with its inviting beaches at York Beach and Ogunquit, “lobsta,” “chowda,” freshly caught fish and fried clams. As a child I had loved the nearby sea, whether living in Rowley or visiting New Hampshire or going ” down” to Maine as New Englanders like to put it.

The same crescendoes of waves hurling themselves against the rocky shore echoing the tidal poundings that I could hear sometimes from my bed at night in Rowley just six miles away from the Massachusetts shore..

No, we didn’t get to my favorite part of Maine reaching up to Boothbay, Camden, Bar Harbor and resplendent Acadia National Park. I’ve yet to see jagged Mt. Katahdin with its spectacular hiking trails and grand vistas, or the many forest secluded lakes that comprise northern Maine’s landscape that fascinated Thoreau; but it’s all there to be drawn upon for future visits, perhaps more often because I’m frankly running low on time.

Places yet to renew my spirit in an increasingly savage world of human abode, New England with its mountains, lakes, thundering seas, white steepled churches, long history where time gets honored over newness; sailing ventures to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket; 4th of July bonfires and the Boston Pops along the Charles; Harvard Square teeming with bookstores; nature’s autumnal artistry transforming foliage into flaming hues of red and flamboyant orange; jazz festivals in Newport and on Yale’s green; and, yes, the fall of snow bringing hush to a busy world.

After so long absence, I’ve been like a lover returning home, renewed in spirit, “surprised by joy” as Wordsworth put it. Somethings remain stubborn against time’s ceaseless push and you really do find you can go home again.



Don’t Be a Phoul: When Neighbors Cut Down Trees

NYC Central Park
NYC Central Park

My daughter has been complaining in her recent emails about a family on her street in Bellevue, WA.

They’ve cut down two lovely Douglas fir trees, the kind that startle Easterners like me not used to arboreal skyscrapers, many of them magisterial in their silent dignity bequeathed by longevity.

Bellevue, a fast growing suburb adjacent to Seattle, still enjoys a fecundity most urban areas in America can only envy. When I was there a few weeks ago, I relished walking myriad needle softened pathways of the city’s several forested trails bisecting an urban landscape. Apparently, however, the area has also attracted a newer influx indifferent to the charms of a bucolic setting.

These neighbors complain that their trees were messy. They tired of the needles falling on their roof and car. Around the corner, another neighbor recently did the same thing for the sake of planting a garden free of shade. In its slovenliness, it appears she’s made things worse, not better.

Meanwhile, the company that’s done the cutting directly goes about soliciting customers door-to-door on a regular basis. One of the cutters bragged to my daughter, obviously relishing her displeasure, that he likes chopping down trees.

Unfortunately, we live in an America that prides itself on a free economy, with consumers having sovereignty over their choices. Sadly, in this case, these individuals opted to buzz-saw these magnificent sentries of public health into oblivion for convenience sake.

It’s the way things work in a mutual exchange between the entrepreneurs of the market place, motivated by money, igniting consumer sentiment often detrimental in its long term consequences; for example, alcohol and cigarettes. George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, Nobel Prize winners, term it a “manipulation of focus” in their insightful new book, Phishing for Phools: The Economcs of Manipulation and Deception (Princeton University Press).

Phishing is their term for business interests that phish (i. e., angle) to get phools (consumers) such as you and me to do their bidding to the detriment of ourselves. Think banks, pharmaceuticals, real estate agents, etc.

There are two kinds of phools: those who fall for the falsity of the phishers’ claims and those, the vast majority of the public, who succumb to their own emotions, prone to making bad decisions simply because they initially feed their emotional wants. You see  this in matters of health where our predominant diseases such as atherosclerosis, diabetes and often cancer arise from faulty lifestyle choices such as the wrong food, overeating, indulging in alcohol, or not exercising.

It’s this way of doing things, in this case, overblown avarice with its bubble effect that led to the colossal recession of 2008.

In sum, what’s been happening in my daughter’s neighborhood, threatening its pristine uniqueness, is a facsimile of the phisher-phool conundrum writ large, neighbors manipulated into opting unwittingly against their long term interests.

Maybe you think this is all nonsense. Property owners have the right to do as they like.

But have they the right to harm the public-interest, given the menace of air pollution and global warming, by cutting down their trees?

And what about the neighborhood aesthetic? Hurrah for neighborhood associations!

We aren’t disconnected beings. Yes, we are our brothers’ keepers.

Bellevue government needs to get itself in gear. Trees are public domain just like telephone poles and street lights. Good government is on to this. Consider New York which just completed planting one million trees or Boston which plans to plant 100,000.

It’s estimated that planting trees in urban areas reduces energy use up to 50%. Just one tree absorbs up to 8 pounds of air pollution annually. Trees increase property value. Studies show people drive slower on tree lined streets. They add beauty and lend character.

Let’s not be phouls!




Medicine discovers meditation

stressFunny how the poets I read and taught in college have a way of popping up in my mind, even though I’ve been away from that scene for seven years now.  Take, for instance, the English poet Wordsworth.  He’s famous for his nature poetry and talks about “wise passivity,” by which he meant suspending the thinking part and simply letting the senses imbibe the stillness we often find in nature and arriving at the things that really matter. I’d say he was right on the mark, especially with our modern way of living crowding our space to be ourselves, muffling the intuitive stream that fosters coherence and confers tranquility.

A few days ago I was rummaging through the Tao Te Ching, which I like to do every now and then, since it’s densely packed with wise counsel, and came upon this passage that got me started on this present blog entry:

Act by not acting,
Accomplish by not straining
Understand by not knowing. (63)

 Simple but profound, such counsel promotes understanding and, with it, healing.  We need to teach ourselves to be still that we may intuit the essentials and practice mindfulness, something the East with its contemplative traditions discovered several millennia ago, anticipating poets like Wordsworth and, now, contemporary medicine.  The ancients were right all along about meditation as essential to our best selves.  In a time of ever increasing stress, we need its solace more than ever.  Consider this sober warning in the Harvard Newsletter (March 2011):

Over the years, researchers have . . . gained insight into the long-term effects stress has on physical and psychological health. Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that prolonged stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. More preliminary research suggests that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity, both through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise).

With available electroencephalogram testing of alpha brain waves along with pulse rate monitoring and even MRI brain scans focusing on “gray matter” in the brain areas responsible for memory, self-awareness and empathy, we now have empirical data gathered by professionals that can be replicated.  In sum, we know meditation works, which means that it can assuage pain and prevent or heal some of our entrenched ills, whether physical or psychological. The paradigm of medical reliance on medication, surgery, diet and exercise is expanding.  In short, a quiet revolution is underway as medicine discovers the ancient axiom that mind and body are one.

Perhaps its seed was planted most notably in the fascination the Beatles showed for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of  Transcendental Meditation.  Luminaries such as film director David Lynch; TV notables, Ellen Degeneres and Oprah swear by it.  Hey, George Stephanopoulos is into it too.  TM prides itself on research findings, at this juncture, some 700 plus, allegedly confirming its effectiveness in reducing stress, depression, high blood pressure and cardiac risk.

BensonMedicine started to look seriously at a supplementary role for meditation with Harvard’s Herbert Benson putting it to the test via the rigors of refined imaging, using TM volunteers.  As he put it, “Three decades ago it was considered scientific heresy for a Harvard physician and researcher to hypothesize that stress contributed to health problems and to publish studies showing that mental focusing were good for the body.”  Benson opened up medicine to meditation’s possible inclusion with his best selling (four million copies) The Relaxation Response in 1975.  “With meditation alone, the T.M. practitioners brought about striking physiologic change.”

Benson subsequently converted TM into a simple two step approach:  repeat a word or phrase of your own choosing and disregard distracting, every day thoughts by returning to your word or phrase.

Benson’s work was soon popularized in the public world through Norman Cousins, physician Dean Ornish, and a Barbara Walter’s ABC interview.  Still, the medical community for nearly 15 years dismissed Benson’s findings as largely a placebo effect.  That changed as other universities took up their own research, supporting Benson.  Today, Harvard has launched an endowed professorship dedicated to continuing research and treats thousands of clients seeking relief from stress with the Benson method.  Relaxation Response therapy is, in fact, incorporated into specialized programs at Boston’s Harvard linked Beth Israel and Massachusetts General hospitals, with fourteen affiliates nationally.

Today the meditation mainstream seems to be shifting to what’s called “mindfulness meditation,” an adaptation of the Zen approach to medication pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts to treat patients with debilitating diseases and chronic pain.  Like relaxation response meditation, mind-based stress reduction, or MBSR, is science centered, except it differs in how it approaches meditation.  Instead of a word, or mantra, and returning to it when your thoughts wander, you allow your thoughts, noting them, though not analyzing them, returning to focus on your breathing.  The idea is to objectify rather than personalize your thoughts, enabling you to better deal with them.  It’s been shown to activate the gray matter in those areas of the brain responsible for memory, a sense of self and empathy.  It inculcates self acceptance and helps us see that memory belongs to the past and isn’t real.

As such, it works well as a backdrop to the now widespread cognitive approach in counselingYou can actually practicemindfulness” anywhere, or while walking, listening to music, taking in conversation.  Allegedly, it can, with time, help  you become more empathetic through your heightened awareness of your own responses and thus a more diligent listener in social contexts

Whether you use a mantra or mindfulness approach doesn’t really matter since both result in a relaxation effect, though in my very limited experience I find the mantra version easier than mindfulness, which by its very nature can sometimes be distressing.  But there are many kinds of meditation formats, so you may want to search for what makes you most comfortable.  What’s worked especially well for me is known as Restorative Yoga, a derivative of Hatha yoga combining breathing, imaging, muscle relaxation and mild body postures.  I was introduced to it through Nurrie and Rick Stearn’s helpful book, Yoga for Anxiety:  Meditations and Practices for Calming Mind and Body.  Yoga might just be the most integrative of all approaches, administrating to both body and spirit.

I have to be candid: meditation does have its skeptics, some of them arguing that the alleged empirical effects can be attributed to advocate or placebo causes.  Personally, I’ve always found the latter untenable, since if it promotes healing, then the placebo response actually validates the psychosomatic power of the mind, which is ultimately what meditation is all about.

Others argue that random controlled trials (RCT), the gold standard, are lacking, and I’ve found this to have validity; for example, if you turn to the highly regarded Cochrane database, combing scores of medical journals, only one study turns up and it’s equivocal, recommending more randomized testing.

For all the claims that meditation can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, the American Heart Association has reserved judgment.  While its definitive report, published in April of this year, does indicate that TM can reduce blood pressure, it urges more research and assigns a lower rating to alternative meditation therapies.  I don’t see a problem here.  Meditation shouldn’t occur in isolation, but in concert with medication when needed, surgery when required, healthier food choices, and regular exercise as constants.

Meditation enthusiasts will rave about its benefits, how it’s made them calmer, more relaxed, better able to deal with both themselves and others, etc., but this is the stuff of anecdote, not science,  Just how do you quantify happiness?  And yet if we see behavioral change such as freedom from drugs; a happier disposition; a gentler, more loving person, we may not be able to measure it, but we know something is going on.

Frankly, I’m impressed with what doctors like Benson and Kabat-Zinn have uncovered.  To be sure, it’s a new science with bumps that need smoothing out, but its future lies in its promise and the empirical base on which it rests.

It seems The American Psychological Association APA) is on board, giving a resounding endorsement to MBSR.  (See Davis and Hayes.  “What are the benefits of mindfulness?” Monitor on Psychology.  July/August2012.  Vol. 43, No. 7.)

Of course, you can resort to SSRIs like Effexor, Zoloft and Lexapro, or quick fixes through benzies like Xanax or Valium, but they come with baggage, or side effects, sometimes worse than any proffered cure.  By the way, research has demonstrated that MBSR is at least half as effective in treating stress as SSRIs.  It’ so effective that the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has listed MBSR among primary therapies for depression.

As a final caveat, do you remember James Randi, skeptic extraordinaire, debunker of the paranormal?  Though he dismisses TM for its lavish claims that include levitation and psychic prowess to influence social behavior, he nonetheless can accept a relaxation response as ameliorating physical and psychological health, whether through meditation or some other means like music or just plain rest.

That makes sense to me.  After all, isn’t this what meditation comes down to–indulgence in time out?  We all need that.

Teach us to be still.






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Bearded Heroes of a Resurgent Boston


I watched the Rolling Rally on NESN Saturday with pride and emotion as it wound its way along Boylston Street, over to the Common, then into the Charles (quite literally).   Two million strong, Bostonians lined the streets, often forty deep; stood on steps, looked out windows; and, yes, gazed from roof tops, cheering wildly as their Red Sox heroes passed by in duck boats normally used for touring, waiving back, sometimes slapping hands. Duck boat diplomacy! Certainly, assuredly, unlike so much in life, everything conspired to make this day a success, not least, an unusually warm day in November Boston, a day that will replay itself in memory long after.

Who would have thunk it: that last year’s record 97 losses and last place finish in the American League East would give way to World Series winners?  This was a  motley team in some ways stiched together remarkably, if not cunningly, by general manager Ben Cherington into a flamboyant weave that included a new skipper, John Farrell, articulate, knowledgeable, and able.

Even then, it seemed a no go for the Sox as relief pitching woes mounted up what with sore arms and inability to put out fires.  Ominously, ace pitcher Buchholtz, after a 9 and 0 start, developed a clavicle problem, removing him from the mound till September.  Even in the Series, there was the bullpen collapse of normally reliable Breslow (the Yale biomed whiz).

Chalk up their success to maybe the overachiever syndrome that sometimes compensates for handicap and wins through?  Well, maybe.  For sure, they didn’t get to the winner circle from any embedded superiority.  You might even say this was a David vs. Goliath scenario, replaying itself nightly throughout the season and into the post season against all odds.

The American League playoffs proved better than their hype, the Sox facing an always menacing Tampa Bay, followed by a heavy hitting Detroit team replete with two of the games superior hurlers. Finally, the perennial winning St. Louis Cardinals with, again, fine pitching and, on paper, a knock out bullpen.

It didn’t matter.  The clues, if you think about it, had a way of happening, and kept happening, from the very outset, with the Sox finding ways to win, coming from behind, usually in late innings; each game, a new hero: Big Pappi, Victorino, Gomes, Napoli, Nava;  sometimes Ellsbury on the bases, setting the table; often, a leaping catch by an ever nimble Pedroia or Drew of a smash drive or a diving, in-the-web grab by Gomes.  Slowly I began to believe.  And so did Boston.

They did it so often, thirty times, that it seemed a given–just wait.  Hey, they scratched out one run wins, thrilled us nightly with walk off scenarios, and then there fell into place, as  it were, our secret weapon, passionate, diminutive Koji Uehara, who hitters couldn’t hit.

And how about Lester, fading, only to find himself again, winning games, and anchoring our rotation in the playoffs and Series? Not far behind, Lackey, back from Tommy John surgery, pitching gem after gem right through the Series. “A beautiful thing,” as colorful commentator Dennis Eckersley likes to say.

So many stories here. So many heroes!

But for me, the most important story is that of April’s human wrought mayhem on Patriot’s Day at the finish line of the world’s favorite marathon.  Once again, as in all such misdeeds, I’m reminded of the human capacity to enact evil.  But I also have faith in the resident goodness of the vast majority to confront and transcend such evil.  As Big Papi famously put it, “This is our … City.  Boston needed to be strong and as the President said, “Boston would celebrate again.”

sox5And that’s where the Red Sox came in, showing the way past adversity to renewal.  That’s what the huge crowds were all about.  They identified with the sleeve patch each player now wore:  “Boston Strong.”

Sadly, in this day of free agency and change as one of life’s non-negotiables, we’ll not see their like again with their bearded idiosyncrasies. Peavy ended up buying the duck boat on which he rode.  (He had previously given us the cigar store Indian, which became a dugout fixture, home and away). Saturday evening, the celebration seemingly carried on, captured in a photo of Napoli, apparently inebriated, bare chested, wandering the streets.  I doubt few Bostonians care.  He earned his indulgence and drinks on the house.  I do know we’ll miss that nightly tugging of the beards!

Every now and then I come across some who disdain sports as a volatile vanity out-of-place in a troubled world.  But I don’t see it that way.  Here we can learn something from wise Vergil, who also knew the depth of suffering first hand.  In one episode of his great Aeneas, he writes entirely of several sport contests.  In his prescience, he knew their analogy with life.  Sports give diversion, and what’s wrong with a time out anyway?  But they are more than that, testing and teaching character, a word whose meaning we’ve largely lost to our own detriment.  Tell me how athletes play the game and I’ll tell you if you can count on them in life.  Their true value lies not in victory, but in pursuit.

This was a team of bonded brothers who went everywhere together.  They loved one another and how we loved them!   They helped Bostonians refocus. The poet Dante defined hell as a place of lost souls who had abandoned hope.  The Red Sox taught Bostonians how to climb out of hell and hope again.  Not least, a whole nation.

sox2How moving their stopping in Copley Square, the singing of God Bless America. Team and city united.  City and team become one.

What a wonderful day.  What a beautiful thing.

Boston Strong.

Thank you, guys!


Exploring the motives behind the Boston bombings

In Kentucky, this week brought news of a prisoner at the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex dead of stab wounds to his neck inflicted by another inmate.  Authorities are presently still investigating the incident, but what baffles even more is learning that the perpetrator was up for parole this June, or just two months from now.  Once again, human motives entice with their mystery and form the bedrock of modern psychology.

It was my wife who brought this anomaly to my attention, and I replied that maybe it was poor impulse control, which some experts have suggested lies behind a great deal of violence and criminality.  Having worked with juvenile youth in trouble with the law, I find much to support this view.  I also know that people, any of us, have different thresholds or breaking points, for acting out unconscious motives.

This leads to the great question as to whether human beings are fundamentally rational creatures.  The great Irish writer, Jonathan Swift, apparently didn’t think so, writing Gullivers Travels to debunk such pretense.  You’ll remember that in this precursor to Planet of the Apes,  the horses are invested with rationality in contrast to the Yahoos, or human kind, swayed by their passions.  Voltaire wasn’t far behind Swift in harboring a similar view in Candide, in which humanity’s misdeeds obliterate any claim to rationality.

In modern literature, Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, and Golding’s Lord of the Flies continue in the same vein.  You might say it’s Thomas Hobbes’ philosophical dismissal of Man put to fiction:  “The source of every crime is some defect of the understanding; or some error in reasoning; or some sudden force of the passions.”

Freud and Jung, though perhaps relegated to the back burner these days, established that there lies in all of us powerful, unconscious dynamics motivating our behavior.  We are not always who we seem to be and, thus, may not always comprehend our own motivations.

Last week began with terror in Boston instigated by two brothers supposedly in their embrace of a militant, or jihadist, Islam.  I would quarrel with this, for their motives may again lie deeper in the quagmire of the psychological.  After their violence, the younger brother returned to campus and gave a lift in his car to another student.  Neighbors have commented on their surprise that these two could commit such mayhem.  The wife and in-laws of the older brother have expressed shock.

I think we’ve all seen this script before.  People can be masters of disguise, fooling neighbors, families and friends.  Now comes word from the New York police commissioner that the brothers may have been planning on skipping down to New York to party in the aftermath.  Such callousness, of course, reflects a total lack of conscience that made their savagery possible.

My point is that they may have been in denial of their true motivation, rooted in envy and personal ineffectuality and living primarily on welfare. Now the survivor is offering the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as shallow justification, not radicalization by foreign sources.  More likely, in my mind, they were out to make headlines, buoying up their low self-esteem.  Humans, however, are frequently unable to deal with dissonant truths about themselves and thus will resort to rationalization.  As Sir Walter Scott aptly put it in Marmion, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”

I haven’t read him, but Dr. Mark Leary of Duke University has written richly on the subject of motivation, twelve books in all.  One of the biggest motivators, according to Leary, seems to be our need to impress our fellows.  This helps explain the lust for social status–the big house, luxurious car, making big bucks, obtaining power.  But for those who can’t find entry, low self esteem may result in a murderous spite bent on inflicting pain.  Misdeeds like those of Aurora,  Virginia Tech,  or Newtown and, now Boston, are  wrought by losers seeking to get even.  As such, they will always constitute a clear and present danger.

Come to think of it, it was the Tsarnaev uncle in Maryland who publicly called his nephews “losers. ” He got that right!


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